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A year later, mother's grief is still profound

Barbara Pritchett marks the anniversary of her son's death in court as the trial of his accused killer begins.

June 22, 2008|Jill Leovy | Times Staff Writer

Barbara Pritchett spent the anniversary of her son's death last week with her eyes closed.

Ever since 15-year-old Dovon was gunned down on his way home from school last June, Pritchett had been dreading the day one year from his death. Except for an evening memorial, she had planned to spend it quietly.

Instead, by coincidence, the trial of the teenager accused of killing Dovon opened the day of the anniversary, and Pritchett marked the occasion in a Compton courtroom, hunched in a front-row seat, eyes squeezed shut.

In an effort to track the aftermath of a randomly chosen street slaying, The Times began following Pritchett's life in a series of monthly interviews that began the day after Dovon's death June 17, 2007.

The interviews chronicled, not the progression of homicide grief, but its immobility. Month after month, Pritchett, 42, seemed to move no closer toward acceptance of her son's killing. Her demeanor, her description of her mental state barely changed. She appeared less, not more, able to function in her daily life, and described the same roller coaster of "good days and bad days."

"It's still the same," she said during a recess in the court proceedings. "It's nothing you get over."

Dovon Harris was one of the more than 900 homicide victims in Los Angeles County last year. He was in Watts on his way home from a graduation ceremony the afternoon of June 14 when a bullet struck him in the back of the head. Brain-dead, he was on life support in the hospital from Thursday until Sunday as his family made the decision to take him off the ventilator and donate his organs. A few days later, detectives arrested 16-year-old Derrick Washington on suspicion of shooting Dovon.

Apart from Dovon's youth, there was nothing particularly unusual about the homicide. Nor was his mother's experience of grief atypical.

Diane Lawson Taylor, Pritchett's therapist, said homicide grief is different from grief following natural or even accidental death. The homicide-bereaved "are the most difficult cases I have ever had," she said.

After the shooting, Pritchett arrived in time to see Dovon lying face down.

Later, when he was on the ventilator -- his body swollen with fluids, his face burned from gunpowder -- Pritchett insisted that LAPD Homicide Det. John Skaggs come to his bedside to see him during the few hours his skin remained warm to the touch. She wanted the investigator to feel personally connected to Dovon, she said.

Skaggs' investigation led to Washington, whose arrest was announced shortly afterward at a candlelight vigil for Dovon at the site of the shooting on 114th Street near Central Avenue.

A month later, Pritchett described her mental state as "moment to moment." She had quit her job as a home healthcare worker because her employer would not agree to bereavement leave.

Soon after, she was home in the afternoon and heard a gunshot. She went out to find yellow tape in front of her house. Another teenager, Henry Henderson, 17, had been shot in an unrelated homicide. Pritchett felt herself spiraling.

She began spending long hours at her son's grave site. Or she sat in her house, often alone. After three months, she described experiencing a new, acute sense of Dovon's absence but admitted his death "still seems like a dream to me. Like he is just gone somewhere." She was afraid, she said, about how she would feel when reality finally set in.

At four months, Pritchett returned to her job. But she experienced uncontrolled crying fits, or would sit for long periods in her car, sobbing, and arrive late. She went to a hospital to ask about counseling. "I know I need help," she said.

At five months, Pritchett left her job again. She resumed her days inside, providing child care for relatives. She began counseling. She was less social: Family members once gathered at her house, she said, but now it seemed people felt uncomfortable in the palpable atmosphere of grief.

At a preliminary hearing in December, Pritchett passed out. Family members had to call an ambulance.

In conversations with The Times, she became increasingly emotional. After six months of near total silence about the events surrounding Dovon's killing, she now began to talk about them in detail. A few topics remained off-limits, such as the moment she saw his body in the street. She began to connect with community activists and speak of homicide in political terms.

After nine months, she began to feel the strain on her health. She learned she had diabetes. Her doctor told her to walk more, but she soon gave up the idea, afraid she would be shot on the street.

On Tuesday, exactly one year after Dovon was taken off life support, Pritchett awoke at 5 a.m., having slept only a few hours. She arranged her hair elaborately, donned a T-shirt silk-screened with Dovon's photo and headed to the Compton courthouse. She wore the T-shirt inside out, since the judge had said family members could not display his image during the trial.

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